(“What Hillary Wants” by Gail Sheehy, Vanity Fair; 1992)
In May of 1990, Bill Clinton was running for his fifth term as governor of Arkansas. While he was conveniently out of town, a challenger in the Democratic primary, Tom McCrae, called a press conference in the echo chamber of the capitol rotunda. He was in the middle of telling everyone who would listen that Bill Clinton was a chicken—“and since the governor will not debate . . .”—when all at once another voice chewed into his sound bite. “Tom, who was the one person who didn’t show up in Springdale? Give me a break! I mean, I think that we oughta get the record straight . . .”
The camera swung around to a small, yellow-haired woman in a houndstooth-check suit—literally in his face. Having crashed McCrae’s photo op, she planted herself directly opposite him, just spoiling for a fight. She looked quite pale without studio makeup, but her eyes flashed in the lights of the television camera. “Many of the reports you issued,” she charged, “not only praised the governor on his environmental record, but his education record and his economic record!”
The camera spun again to reveal the hapless man’s grit-eating smile, his eyes bobbling around in his head as if he’d just been zapped by a stun gun. His stammering response was trampled by the woman ticking off her points, reading embarrassing passages from the candidate’s own earlier handouts. “You now turn around and as a candidate have a very short memory,” she finished. As they say in Arkansas, she ate his lunch.
The Eyewitness News man wound up his thrilled coverage with the tag line “Hillary Clinton showed again that she may be the best debater in the family.”
It is the Year of the Political Woman. Paul Tsongas, whose least appealing quality was his mopey personality, said with a grateful nod to his attorney wife, Niki, “If you don’t have charisma, you marry it.” Ruth Harkin, a former prosecutor, assumed the role of her husband’s unofficial political adviser for his six-month run. Marilyn Quayle, who told The Washington Post through clenched teeth that politicians in the past never acknowledged that “your little wifey . . . helps you,” commands entry into the Office of the Vice President from a six-office suite across the hall, passing judgment on lobbyists and other supplicants. (Marilyn says she raises a subject with the vice president “if I think it’s important enough.” Otherwise, staffers “let me make the decision instead.”) President Bush, who often leans on his vastly more popular wife at public appearances, has recently brought on board his rudderless re-election team wordsmith Peggy Noonan. Her job description: “Message development.” Even bullyboy Pat Buchanan, Beltway pundits say, wouldn’t have run if it hadn’t been for his sister—who is also his campaign chairwoman.
inRead invented by Teads
And it is Hillary Rodham Clinton, lawyer–activist–teacher–author–corporate boardwoman–mother and wife of Billsomething, who is the diesel engine powering the front-running Democratic campaign. In the space of one week in late January, Hillary fast-forwarded from being introduced as “wife of” (60 Minutes) to the victim of “the other woman” (PrimeTime Live) to “Trapped in a Spotlight, Hillary Clinton Uses It” (The New York Times), the last illustrated by a picture which said it all: Hillary with her arm thrust in the air and wearing a big campaign smile, out in front of her husband.
The forty-four-year-old wife and mother still shows flashes of the sweet ingenue smile of her college years, and has maintained her size 8 by touching little more than a lettuce leaf and water during campaign fund-raisers (her less disciplined husband has put on twenty-five pounds). When the cameras dolly in, however, one can detect the calculation in the f-stop click of Hillary’s eyes. Lips pulled back over her slightly jutting teeth, the public smile is practiced; the small frown establishes an air of superiority; her hair looks lifelessly doll-like.
But there is no mistaking the passion in her words or the impact of her presence. “The instant she came in the door of the ballroom, I knew it,” said a savvy pol, Patricia Derian, an assistant secretary of state under Jimmy Carter, who saw Hillary sway a big-ticket Washington crowd at a benefit in March. There was no fanfare, no spotlight, the lady isn’t even much taller than a podium microphone. “But there was no missing her,” said Derian, “and that’s really rare. She’s a spectacular candidate in her own right. She’s got my vote.”
In Los Angeles, at a March 26 salmon-and-spinach luncheon hosted by Hollywood producer Dawn Steel and television producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (among others), Hillary dazzled an audience that is usually ho-hum about stars and plenty impressed with themselves. “We need to be against brain-dead politics wherever we find it!” she thundered, looking fierce in a fire-engine-red suit. “We need to forge a new consensus about [our] new political direction . . . that doesn’t jerk us to the right, jerk us to the left, prey on our emotions, engender paranoia and insecurity . . . but instead moves us forward together.” Producer Sherry Lansing pronounced it “an extraordinary speech, extraordinary.”
The sold-out luncheon—her most successful of the season, raising $50,000—came off in the heat of the controversy over Hillary’s role in her husband’s campaign. Her snappish response to Jerry Brown’s broadside on her career—“I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas”—had offended millions of women who have chosen to be full-time homemakers, reinvoking the arrogance of the Tammy Wynette quote that so irritated the country-music vote. That very morning, New York Times columnist William Safire had written about what he called “the Hillary problem,” describing her as a “political bumbler” who suffers from “foot-in-mouth disease.”
In a private interview after the luncheon, I asked Hillary how she felt about being labeled “the problem.” Uncharacteristically, she squirmed and stammered. “I don’t know how to feel about it.… I think I’ll just have to be more… careful in the way I express my feelings, so I don’t inadvertently hurt anybody.
“I think the only legitimate concern is around the misconstruction of what I said about baking cookies and having tea. I can understand why some people thought that I was criticizing women who made different choices than the one I had—in fact, criticizing the choice that my mother and a lot of dear friends have made. Nothing could be further from what I believe.”
Did she, then, agree with Barbara Bush, who stirred up a hornet’s nest at Hillary’s alma mater, Wellesley College, when she told students that a working mother should always put family before career? “For me, I believe that,” Hillary replied fervently. “Personally, I believe that a woman should put her family and her relationships—which are really at the root of who you are and how you relate to the world—at the top of your priority list.” She hastened to add, “But I don’t believe that I, or Barbara Bush, should tell all women that’s what they have to put first. . . . What we have to get away from is the idea that there’s only one right choice.”
Hillary seems to understand why she has become a lightning rod in her husband’s presidential campaign. “What they’re trying to figure out is ‘How will she be able to influence him? Who is this person?’ Well, Bill Clinton is the kind of person who asks advice from literally dozens of people. If you look at George Bush, he’s advised by a coterie of men . . . who are, frankly, all of one mind, a very narrow, all-white coterie of, exclusively, men.”
The president is one of Hillary’s favorite targets, and she pillories him mercilessly in her speeches. “When it’s all stripped away,” she told the L.A. crowd, “at bottom what we see is a failure of leadership, rooted in a very hollow sense of what politics is and can be.” As one listener put it, “She’s unbelievably articulate and connects with her audience with a message that hits home.” Then she joined the buzz heard all over the room: “You can’t help but think, Why isn’t she the candidate?”
She almost was. Two years ago, when Bill Clinton considered forgoing his fifth gubernatorial contest in order to build an early base for his lifelong presidential ambitions, Hillary called up a friend and former newspaper publisher in the state, Dorothy Stuck, and asked, “What would happen if I ran for governor?”
“After all this time Bill’s been in office, you’d be hung with his baggage,” answered the veteran newspaperwoman. She pledged her support, but advised Hillary to wait a few more years. “She thought she had a good chance,” remembers Stuck, who adds that Hillary Clinton is revered by many women in Arkansas. Hillary’s closest confidante, Carolyn Huber, confirms, “She got very enthusiastic about the prospect of running for governor.” Hushing her voice, as if telling a little tale out of school, Huber says, “I think she’d like to be governor, but she wasn’t about to try if Bill wanted to again.”
“Some say the wrong Clinton is in the statehouse,” the governor himself drawled at a charity roast of Hillary four years ago, “and I wouldn’t disagree with them.” On February 7, when I asked if he was concerned about being upstaged by his wife, Clinton was unfazed. “I’ve always liked strong women. . . . It doesn’t bother me for people to see her and get excited and say she could be president. I always say she could be president, too.” At his own fund-raisers he has often quipped, “Buy one, get one free!”
In fact, fewer people seem to have negative feelings toward Hillary than toward her husband. According to a national survey conducted from March 27 to 29 by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman for Vanity Fair, 41 percent of those surveyed have a generally favorable impression of Hillary, while 24 percent have an unfavorable one. Fifty-five percent think she is an asset to her husband’s campaign; 24 percent think she’s a liability. A whopping 84 percent say they would not object to a First Lady with a separate career. Those surveyed use the following descriptions of Hillary: intelligent (75 percent); tough-minded (65 percent); a good role model for women (48 percent); a feminist in the best possible sense (44 percent). The negatives: power-hungry (44 percent); too intense (36 percent); a wife who dominates her husband (28 percent). Most disturbing for the Clintons, however, is the skepticism over their relationship: 53 percent think it is more a “professional arrangement” than a “real marriage” (22 percent).
The raised eyebrows are due in part to the way Hillary has seized the stage at certain public appearances. Even the normally unflappable Tom Brokaw was startled when, in the triumphal glow of the southern stomp on Super Tuesday, she shot past her husband to man the microphone. “What I would like to do, in introducing. . .someone. . .” she began, while her husband danced in the background like a prizefighter trying to stay warm. Soon she was booming, “We believe passionately in this country and we cannot stand by for ONE MORE YEAR and watch what is happening to it!” Over the applause, Brokaw observed dryly, “Not just an introduction, this is a speech by Mrs. Clinton.”
Hillary barely referred to her husband—and then only as “the messenger.” If he is the messenger, she may be the message. Those who keep asking “Why isn’t she running?” miss the point. Hillary Clinton is running. She and her husband have been a political team for more than twenty years. And now they are, despite protestations to the contrary, co-candidates for president of the United States. Asked at the L.A. luncheon if she wanted to be her husband’s vice president, Hillary brushed off the question. “I’m not interested in attending a lot of funerals around the world,” she cracked. She got a laugh, but when she continued it was with serious intent. “I want maneuverability . . . I want to get deeply involved in solving problems.” She later told me that she doesn’t see herself as a Cabinet officer but as an all-around adviser. And she doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. “No one gives George Bush a hard time when he gets advice from Jim Baker,” she’d complained to me earlier in the campaign.
Before he was forced to retreat on the subject of Hillary’s possible role in a Clinton administration on NBC’s Meet the Press, Bill told me, “If I get elected president, it will be an unprecedented partnership, far more than Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor. They were two great people, but on different tracks. If I get elected, we’ll do things together like we always have.”
Which would make Hillary Clinton one of the most formidable women in the world, a model of a full partner in public life. Friends go even further, touting Hillary as the next attorney general by pointing out that she would be better qualified than Robert Kennedy was when his brother named him to the post. Hillary’s own brother Hugh Rodham, a public defender in Dade County, Florida, foresees even higher callings. “Attorney general is only local lawmaking,” he says dismissively. “There’s treaty negotiations she could do. There’s labor stuff. There’s secretary of state. . .”
The Clinton camp had planned “a slow build for Hillary,” according to her campaign manager, Richard Mintz. That was until all hell broke loose—until the day Bill Clinton was “deflowered” by a cabaret singer who once headlined at the Pinnacle Lounge in Little Rock.
The candidate’s strategists huddled in panicky planning sessions. One significant piece of information: polls showed that 39 percent of voters would have reservations about voting for a candidate who had been unfaithful—but that the number diminishes if the wife knows about it and accepts it. The clear conclusion was that Gennifer’s unforgettable slot-machine eyes and hydraulic lips and indelible black roots required an immediate visual challenge: the apple-cheeked, moon-eyed wife of the governor, staggeringly poised, effortlessly articulate, primly silk-scarved. Blonde too—in fact, Hillary looked like a Town & Country version of Gennifer Flowers, but not with a G, with a good little Wellesley girl’s hair band covering her brown roots.
Hillary rendezvoused with Bill in Boston the night before the Clintons’ extraordinary “Checkers speech” on 60 Minutes. She conferred with the television crew on colors and camera angles. “You can quote me as saying that my sense of it was that she was in control,” says Steve Kroft, the interviewer. “We fiddled around with who should sit on which side, and they fiddled around with chair heights and things like that. You didn’t know she was his wife, you’d have thought she was a media consultant. She didn’t do it in a dictatorial sort of way. . . . She was very delightful and charming. When they left the room, everybody pretty much said, ‘Boy, she’s terrific’ ”
The next day, before airtime, tension was reportedly running high in the control room, with producer Don Hewitt ranting to Clinton advisers George Stephanopoulos and Harold Ickes, “He’s gotta come clean! He’s got to say yes!” Once Bill and Hillary were seated, Mrs. Clinton stared intently at Bill as he responded to the grilling. This was no Nancy Reagan glaze—this was the look of the consigliere sitting vigil over a member of the family.
Kroft’s impression was that Hillary was “tougher and more disciplined than he is. And analytical. Among his faults, he has a tendency not to think of the consequences of the things he says. I think she knows. She’s got a ten-second delay. If something comes to her mind she doesn’t think will play right, she cuts it off before anybody knows she’s thinking it.”
“I have acknowledged wrongdoing,” Bill offered when the cameras were rolling. “I have acknowledged causing pain in my marriage.” At another point when Kroft pressed him—“I am assuming from your answer that you’re categorically denying that you ever had an affair with Gennifer Flowers”—he took the bait. “I’ve said that before,” he replied quickly. “And so has she . . . ”
In jumped Hillary the litigator: “I don’t want to be any more specific. I don’t think being any more specific about what’s happened in the privacy of our life together is relevant to anybody besides us.”
It was a signal for her husband to button up. “Having made the mistake of denying Gennifer Flowers, he was undoing what they had decided to do,” explains senior campaign adviser Susan Thomases. “So she was reminding him, ‘Hey, buddy, remember our strategy: if you say you’re not going to talk about any specific case, and then you talk about one case, you’re blowing the strategy. ’ ”
Hillary’s presence was so strong, in fact, that, according to Kroft, “we found ourselves rationing her sound bites to keep her from becoming the dominant force in the interview.”
But some people think it has become obvious that Hillary is the dominant force in the Clinton campaign. Even those awed by her commented after her Super Tuesday speech, “There’s something a little scary, a little Al Haig–ish about her.” Her closest counterparts, high-striving professional women, often react viscerally: she’s “too intense,” they say, or she’s “missing something feminine”—as if they can’t forgive her for appearing to have it all.
The slings and arrows never seem to pierce Hillary’s armor-plated determination. “Hillary is convinced the way she does things is the right way,” attests her brother Hugh. Carolyn Huber, the woman who may know her best, having served as Hillary’s “mansion administrator,” day-to-day logistical helper, and surrogate grandmother to her child, affirms that Hillary will simply not be deterred. “She wants to win as bad as he does.” Is she tougher than he is? “I think so,” laughs Huber. “She’s more clear about what she wants and the way she wants it done. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when Hillary set her mind to something she wanted to happen that it hasn’t happened.”
Hillary is widely regarded by their closest associates as the tougher, cooler, and more intellectually tart of the two. Her favorite recreation is standing with friends and talking ideas around the kitchen counter in the governor’s mansion, one long Big Chill party, people helping themselves out of the fridge. (Hillary rarely cooks, and the state dining room is scarcely used.) She might mimic one of her hillbilly witnesses spitting tobacco from the stand while she cross-examines him. Or she’ll burst into a high-pitched Ozark honk—hee hee hee—over one of her husband’s Bubba lines. But come 10:30 she’ll announce, “That’s it for me, I’m goin’ to bed.” Bill is the night owl, the eternal schmoozer; Hillary is the emotionally disciplined one.
Sometimes this causes dissonance. “Hillary’s hard to know,” concedes a close family friend, Carolyn Y. Staley. Another family friend, assured she wouldn’t be identified, is more candid: “I never know from one day to the next how I’m going to be received by Hillary. She’s very busy, she knows exactly where she wants to go and how to get there. You’re either useful or extraneous to her.” Finally she blurts, “Look, Hillary’s tough as nails. Bill has always deferred to women to fight his battles.”
Indeed, throughout his career Bill Clinton has surrounded himself with exceptionally strong-willed, capable women. Following his first and only loss as governor, he drafted the rough-and-tumble George McGovern operative Betsey Wright as his campaign manager; she devoted the next ten years of her life to protecting and re-electing him. (Wright, who quit as Arkansas Democratic Party chair just before Clinton announced, says that she was “fried” by the time this presidential race came around.) He persuaded the flinty Susan Thomases, who had cut her teeth on Bill Bradley’s first Senate campaign, to join his current brain trust. And his top staff in the Arkansas statehouse has been predominantly female. “The only two men I know in American politics who are capable of treating women as real equals,” says Thomases, “are Bill Bradley and Bill Clinton.”
Part of Clinton’s dependence on his wife is financial. As one of the chief litigating partners in the Rose Law Firm and a director on five corporate boards (including a position as the only woman on the board of Wal-Mart) Hillary earned—based on her own figures—an estimated $160,000 in 1990. Twice voted one of the hundred most influential lawyers in America by The National Law Journal, “she could command the top salary for a litigator in any law firm in New York or Los Angeles,” claims her partner Herb Rule. (The going rate is $500,000 and up.) Instead, she has committed much of her energy to pro bono work, such as chairing the Children’s Defense Fund, and serving on the boards of nearly a dozen other educational and social-justice organizations.
“If Hillary were doing what she most wanted to do in this world, she would not be a partner in a corporate law firm,” confides her close friend and former Wellesley dormmate Jan Piercey. “That’s what she’s had to do—she’s responsible for the revenue in the family.” (Bill has increased his salary from $25,000 at the age of twenty-nine to the princely sum of $35,000 almost twenty years later.)
Bill Clinton is the puer aeternus, suggests one of their older, wiser friends—the eternal boy, a Jungian archetype, who remains stuck in an adolescent orientation toward life, often prompted by an exaggerated dependence on his mother. Seductive to men as well as women, the prototypical eternal boy often hopes to redeem mankind; in the archetype he is meant to replace the old king as a symbol of the renewal of life. But the “winged youth” often falls, psychologically, and in crisis turns to strong female figures to raise him up again. “Bill has achieved enormous success, but he’s still reaching,” says an Arkansas friend. “It’s the young man who’s been a star and who is, I hope, not locked in adolescence. We don’t know that yet—he’s only forty-five.”
George Fisher cartooned Bill Clinton in the guise of a boy for fourteen years at the old Arkansas Gazette, starting him off in his first term in a baby buggy, later graduating him to a tricycle and a ten-speed bike. (In real life Bill Clinton plays with a ’64 Mustang—Hillary calls it his “boy’s toy.”) In the mid-eighties Fisher penned a striking drawing that captures Bill Clinton’s dependence on his delivering angels. The cartoon, which was never published, shows three winged, spear-carrying women—Hillary, Betsey, and Clinton’s former press secretary—lifting their barefoot boy from the battlefield. They are meant to be Valkyries, “awful and beautiful,” who gather up the worthy and fly them to Valhalla.
I saw Fisher’s cartoon come to life during what the campaign calls “the incredible week” after the 60 Minutes appearance, a week I referred to once as a “crisis” only to have Hillary correct me: “This is not a crisis, not a personal crisis anyway.” Flying with her, knee-to-knee, I watched while she fashioned the strategy to bring her husband “back from the dead,” as he now describes it.
It was in a nondescript motel in Pierre, South Dakota, where she had twenty minutes of downtime, that Hillary flipped on the TV on Monday, January 27, and caught the end of Gennifer Flowers on CNN playing tapes of her phone conversations with the governor. They were devastating.
“Let’s get Bill on the phone,” Hillary coolly directed her campaign manager, Mintz, who was himself fighting back tears. According to Hillary, Clinton told his wife he wasn’t concerned—after all, who was going to believe this woman? “Everybody knows you can be paid to do anything,” the governor said.
“Everybody doesn’t know that,” she insisted. “Bill, people who don’t know you are going to say, ‘Why were you even talking to this person?’ ”
At 6:25 P.M. Central time, Hillary was pressing the flesh at a Pork Producers Rib Feed in Pierre when her campaign manager whispered in her ear, “All three nets led with the Flowers press conference.” She excused herself and made a beeline for the one pay phone in the hall, pursued by a camera crew from PrimeTime Live. Mintz appealed to them not to shoot her. “I promise I’ll give you a shot of her on the phone, but this is not the time.”
I watched as a terrible shrug went down Hillary’s face. Little Rock was telling her about the latest deal—a young woman had been offered half a million dollars to say she’d had a one-night stand with Bill Clinton. Where would it stop?
Back in her six-seat charter plane, Hillary vented her frustration above the grinding hum: “If we’d been in front of a jury I’d say, ‘Miss Flowers, isn’t it true you were asked this by A.P. in June of 1990 and you said no? Weren’t you asked by the Arkansas Democrat and you said no?’ I mean, I would crucify her.”
Hillary boils over at what she perceives as a double standard—that the press has shied away from investigating long-standing rumors about George Bush. “I had tea with Anne Cox Chambers [the heiress who is chairwoman of her media empire’s Atlanta newspaper group],” Hillary recalled to me in a later interview, “and she’s sittin’ there in her sun-room saying, ‘You know, I just don’t understand why they think they can get away with this—everybody knows about George Bush,’ and then launches into this long description of, you know, Bush and his carrying on, all of which is apparently well known in Washington. But I’m convinced part of it is that the Establishment—regardless of party—sticks together. They’re gonna circle the wagons on Jennifer _ and all these other people.” (Anne Cox Chambers remembers telling Hillary, “I don’t understand why nothing’s ever been said about a George Bush girlfriend—I understand he has a Jennifer, too.”)
The reference is to a decade-long Bush staffer who now enjoys a senior State Department position. She has been persistently linked with the president in rumors that have never been proved. When I interviewed her in 1987 in Bush’s Senate office, the amply built middle-aged woman, a born-again Christian, was discreet about her work and travel with Bush. (In June of 1987, George Bush Jr. told Newsweek that when he asked his father if he’d ever committed adultery he replied, “The answer to the Big A question is N.O.”)
On the tiny plane, Hillary focused on the problem at hand. “I’m just not going to sit by anymore and say, ‘Well, it’s the press’s responsibility.’ If we can destroy people with paid stories, what’s next? . . . I don’t think Bill appreciates how TV really doesn’t give the other side. It’s like negative advertising.” A light bulb switched on behind her eyes. “That’s what I should have told him. In 1980 the Republicans started the negative advertising; in 1992 we have paid political character assassination. What Bill doesn’t understand is you’ve gotta do the same thing in response as you do with negative advertising—Dukakis didn’t understand that.” Suddenly, a brainstorm. “This is the daughter of Willie Horton!” Now she had the outlines of a proactive, not reactive, strategy: pound the “Republican attack machine” and run against the press.
Just before landing, she recited a prayer she says often: Dear Lord, be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small. Thump, bump, the plane skated through the blackness toward a shack with the sign RAPID CITY. Within minutes, Hillary was clicking across the concrete airfield, coatless, eager to coach her husband and rev up the campaign staff on a conference call. “Who’s getting information on the Star?” she demanded. “Who’s tracking down all the research on Gennifer? Where is our surrogate program? Who’s going to be out there speaking for us?” She let the fragile young staffers who had not experienced a Hiroshima in a campaign know that she and Bill were going to be out there fighting, “and I want you all to be putting this stuff together.”
“It was,” says deputy campaign manager George Stephanopoulos, “inspirational.”
To Hillary Clinton, the stories of her husband’s sexual infidelities seem to register, consciously at least, as having nothing to do with her, or with their marriage, but rather as evidence of the depths of degradation to which the hit men behind George Bush will stoop. Rarely does anyone in her audiences dare to bring up the question of infidelity, and when someone does, Hillary usually knocks it out of the park, leaving people cheering. Her refrain has become something of a mantra, protecting her from ever seeming to take the whole ugly business personally: “This is a much bigger issue than just Bill and me—I just hope for the sake of the country we’ll set some boundaries for others coming along.”
Not only is her altruistic defense politically astute, it also serves to buffer her psychologically from the feelings that would send most women off on an emotional roller coaster. “It doesn’t make any difference what people say about her,” says her friend Stuck, “whatever criticism or belittling, she doesn’t take it personally, because the cause is always more important. It may very well be the way she insulates herself from hurt. And I think in the past ten or twelve years with Bill she may have done that, to protect her sanity.”
In all the time I traveled with Hillary, and in sixty interviews with her friends, family, and associates, there was just one hint of a deep emotional reaction. “She never shows her personal feelings on the surface,” attests Carolyn Huber, but that week, when the governor’s wife phoned her confidante and Huber broke into sobs, a fissure opened in the protective coating of equanimity. “I know, Carolyn, it’s hurting so bad,” Hillary said. “The press doesn’t believe you have any feelings. They sure don’t believe in the Bible.”
But Hillary is also an avowed pragmatist, accustomed to life in the political fishbowl. “She knew this day would come,” says Jan Piercey, her former college dormmate, “and she wasn’t going to put anybody in the position of lying.” Another friend says of the media frenzy over Clinton’s nocturnal peccadilloes, “None of this came as a surprise to her.”
I asked Hillary if she thought her husband had told her everything she needed to know. “Yes. I have absolutely no doubt about that,” she replied, her light-blue eyes unblinking beneath the dark hedgerow of brows. “I don’t think I could be sitting here otherwise. That’s been, over years, part of the development of trust.”
I asked if she thought Gary Hart was qualified to be president, or did she think his problems revealed something disturbing about his character? “He was not yet at a point where he could be honest with himself, that’s my perception,” she said. “People in his campaign said they confronted him and said, ‘Have you ever?’ and he said ‘No.’ ”
She praised Bill Clinton for being honest with the people he loves, admitting his problems, and declaring he wanted to do better. “I think as he got older, as he became a father, he began to let his breath out a little bit,” observes Hillary. Her husband believes that trauma and mistakes are all tests that help one grow. For him, says Hillary, “it’s a constant coming to grips with who you are and what stage of life you can grow beyond.”
The Clintons’ friends fiercely idealize their marriage, seeing in it a remarkable integration of strong personalities and sheer guts. “Most of us have thrown in the towel,” says one friend, the thoughtful actress Mary Steenburgen. “These people didn’t. It’s exciting to be around them and to see how it can be to be a married couple.” Another member of the “Arkansas diaspora” in L.A., television producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, is one of Hillary’s most loyal intimates. “Look, this isn’t Lurleen Wallace,” says Bloodworth-Thomason. “Hillary doesn’t have to stay with Bill Clinton. She could get to the Senate or possibly the White House on her own—and she knows it. . . . But these two people are intertwined on every level, as a man and woman, as friends, as lovers, as parents, as politicians. . . . This is a love story.” Huber agrees, describing how “Bill and Hillary are always smooching.” Their pals call the Clintons “soul mates,” saying they confide fully in nobody, not even family, only in each other.
“She also has an investment in this marriage and his career,” points out the practical Wright, who says Hillary never considered divorce. “It absolutely was not an alternative that she gave him.”
The only area of vulnerability friends spot in Hillary is her daughter, Chelsea. The longest periods of silence she maintains are in hotel rooms, a phone cradled to her ear, often dead tired but listening without interruption to the stream-of-consciousness account of the twelve-year-old’s day. Before the campaign, Hillary was out of town on law or board work two or three nights a week. She does homework with Chelsea by fax.
“Whenever Hillary was there, she always sat with Chelsea while she had dinner,” recalls Melinda Martin, the resident baby-sitter from ’85 to ’87. (Most of the Clintons’ baby-sitters are fresh out of the University of Arkansas, with names like Melinda, Melissa, and Michelle.)
I asked Melinda how often Bill and Hillary went out together. “Just the two of them? Very, very seldom. . . . Hillary took Chelsea on vacations. Bill would promise to catch up, but usually he’d come a couple of days late, or not at all.”
Hillary’s protectiveness of her daughter took precedence one evening, at the peak of the bimbomania, when she was facing a command performance as the “candidate’s wife” before a backbiting Washington audience at a roast of Ron Brown, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Bill was scheduled to take Chelsea to a father-daughter dance at the Little Rock Y.W.C.A. Their friend Linda Bloodworth-Thomason had an inspiration: “Let’s do a live remote to Little Rock—it will be a nice image for them to see Bill dancing with his daughter.”
Hillary didn’t think twice. “No,” she said. “This is Chelsea’s night.”
It is one of Hillary’s philosophical tenets that children should be spoken to just like adults. This explains how Hillary is able to pass the supermarket checkout counter in the company of her adored daughter without gagging. Indeed, Hillary is the first to point out the lurid tabloid headlines screaming about multiple affairs or a love child, instructing Chelsea that “this is what’s to be expected in a political campaign.” Chelsea follows the political horse race avidly, but “when they talk bad about my daddy” on TV, she leaves the room.
For women who have been betrayed by unfaithful husbands, Hillary Clinton is a Rorschach test. Some grimace at the prospect of having their hearts broken by a man whose story you never know whether to believe: “I don’t want another charmer.” Others admire her stoicism and buy the strength-through-adversity story.
Still, any wife subjected to embarrassing, detailed reports of infidelity must register searing pain at some level. It is quite possible that Hillary is so focused on power agendas that she is disconnected from her feelings, able to compartmentalize her pain: she codes it, labels it, and puts it away in the deep freeze. What does that leave? An unresolved hurt so profound that it may not surface until all the sound and fury of campaigning is over.
The secret behind Hillary’s boldness goes back to the torch passed from a silent generation of mothers to the daughters of the feminist movement. “I was determined that no daughter of mine was going to have to go through the agony of being afraid to say what she had on her mind,” says Dorothy Rodham, Hillary’s mother, who hadn’t finished college before marrying Hugh Rodham, a rough-edged Chicago salesman and later owner of a small textile business. Mrs. Rodham made raising her three children her full-time occupation. They played endless word games and rarely watched television. Thus, Hillary was an especially sheltered four-year-old when the Welsh-English family moved to Park Ridge, a middle-class, white-collar suburb out near O’Hare airport.
The new neighborhood was dominated by a family with a daughter, Suzy, who regularly decked the beribboned little Hillary, watching in triumph as she ran home sobbing.
“There’s no room in this house for cowards,” Hillary’s mother announced one day. “You’re going to have to stand up to her. The next time she hits you, I want you to hit her back.”
Out trudged the trembling four-year-old. A circle of scowling boys and the pugilistic girl closed around her. Suddenly, Hillary threw out her fist, knocking Suzy off her pins. The boys’ mouths dropped open. Flushed with victory, Hillary ran home to exclaim to her proud mother, “I can play with the boys now!”
The lesson sank in deep. “Boys responded well to Hillary,” clucks her mother. “She just took charge, and they let her.” Even as a child she thought in terms of mobilizing constituents for her causes, organizing neighborhood carnivals or clothing drives for migrant workers. As a young teen she helped her youth minister, the Reverend Don Jones, in counseling black and Hispanic teens from the South Side. “She would think things through to see what would be appealing to the group,” recalls her brother Hugh. “We would just follow along as little brothers.”
The other formative experience for Hillary was competitive sports. A keen though terminally mediocre athlete, Hillary now appreciates having learned the lesson few girls did in those days: “You win one day, you lose the next day, you don’t take it personally. You get up every day and you go on.” It became the pattern of her life, a pattern that has fortified her in the topsy-turvy days of the current campaign.
To go east in 1965 to Wellesley College—“all very rich and fancy and very intimidating to my way of thinking”—was a big stretch. She started out a Goldwater Girl. Though instant conversions to radicalism were common at the time, Hillary had a slower, more thoughtful evolution in her political views, working her way through the moderate Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party to campaigning for Eugene McCarthy by ’68.
Jeff Shields, her Harvard boyfriend in those days, who is now a Chicago lawyer, fell in love with her earnestness. “The thing that I remember most were the conversations,” he recalls. “She would rather sit around and talk about current events or politics or ideas than to go bicycle riding or to a football game.”
Hillary’s charisma was strong enough to attract a half-dozen girls to move into the Gothic dorm, Stone Davis, to be near her. They all ate together in a cloistered stone-and-glass gazebo. “You were surrounded by role models,” remembers Jan Piercey of the all-female college. “We came away just assuming that everyone had serious aspirations.” Hillary became president of her college government and graduated with high honors.
Coming to political consciousness in the late 1960s, Hillary saw these as “years dominated by men with dreams, men in the civil-rights movement and the Peace Corps, the space program.” As an ambitious fourteen-year-old Hillary had written to NASA asking what it took to be an astronaut. She was told girls need not apply. Still, “growing up in the fifties, a lot of us sensed that we could redefine what women do.” Her mother had hoped Hillary would be the first woman on the Supreme Court, “but Sandra Day O’Connor beat her to it,” she jokes. Friends along the way have told her what Dorothy Stuck says today: “Regardless of what happens to Bill, the nation will be exposed to Hillary Clinton, and Hillary could—and should—be our first woman president.”
Bill Clinton’s childhood, as tumultuous as Hillary’s was stable, helps illuminate his complicated relationship with his wife and the mistakes that have tested their political and personal partnerships.
Three months prior to his birth, his mother, a high-spirited, part–Native American, part-Irish woman by the maiden name of Virginia Cassidy, lost Bill’s father, the first of her four husbands. William Jefferson Blythe III, a traveling salesman, swerved across the highway driving home from Chicago and drowned in a rain-filled ditch at the age of twenty-nine. The tragedy meant that Bill was left with his grandparents in the tiny town of Hope, Arkansas, for his first four years while his mother went off to New Orleans to pursue nurse’s training in anesthesiology. Young Billy adored his grandfather, a six-day-a-week storekeeper who died when the boy was eleven. From then on he was bereft of family male role models.
When I asked Bill Clinton who was the first man who endorsed him as worthwhile, there was a very long pause. He stared out the plane window at the bleak, snow-blistered New England terrain. After mentioning his grandfather, he spoke stiffly of his stepfather Roger Clinton. “He took me to St. Louis in a train once, I remember that.” He dredged up one family vacation, one fishing trip. “Literally, all those years and I can count on one hand—there just weren’t many times. It was sort of sad. . . . I missed it.”
When Bill was seven, the family moved to Hot Springs, a tingly place notorious for its racetrack, illegal gambling clubs, whorehouses, and gangster glamour. Every winter the high rollers would come from New York and Chicago and Miami Beach, looking for action. “The Clintons fit in with all that,” says Carolyn Staley, the local preacher’s daughter, who introduced herself to me at Clinton headquarters as “Bill’s ‘girl next door.’ ” Staley says Virginia Clinton was at the races every day—still is—she has her own box. “She loves it, it’s in her blood. She wrote her own rules.”
Clinton’s mother also worked at being glamorous. With a silver streak dyed down the middle of her dark hair and three shades of eye shadow, “she’d put on tailored men’s pajamas and mules and hang around with a cigarette in her hand, real Hollywood,” says Staley. “She was a good-lookin’ lady and hilarious . . . . One-liners are her trademark, like a walking female Will Rogers.”
Virginia Clinton remained emotionally stoic through the abuse of Bill’s alcoholic stepfather, who went on rampages that sometimes ended with a bullet hole shot in the wall or a beating of Bill’s mother or younger brother. Finally, at fourteen, Clinton put an end to the violence in a shocking confrontation that marked the turning point of his adolescence. Hearing a fight, he broke down the door of his parents’ bedroom. “[I] told him that I was bigger than him now, and there would never be any more of this while I was there,” Clinton recalled to political writer Joe Klein.
Virginia Clinton temporarily threw Roger out of the house—a brief divorce—and began taking her teenage son along to a nightclub she frequented called the Vapors. During racing season the club ran fast and loose with lusty Vegas entertainers singing over the raucous chi-ching of slot machines and the squeals at the blackjack tables—an experience which seems to have simultaneously intrigued and repelled the boy. “It was fascinating,” Bill told me. But he added, “I didn’t like to be around dark smoky places where people were drinking too much. . . . I had a real negative association with alcoholism. I think subconsciously I was afraid it would happen to me.” Bill later became president of his Baptist Sunday-school class.
“Some of the mistakes I made later in life were rooted in all those things that were unsaid or unexplored when we were growing up,” Bill told me. Virginia Clinton made no attempt to explain or analyze behavior. “My mother was trying to keep peace and survive in an explosive situation.” Bill never rebelled, adds Staley. “He had to be the shining light in his mother’s life.”
The fact that his reality as a child was completely defined by a woman may explain his later dependence on Hillary and other strong women. Young Bill also developed the pleasing style of many children from alcoholic homes, who reason, as Betsey Wright describes it, “ ‘If I’m really nice, and I make this person feel better, then maybe this [behavior] will stop.’ ” Wright adds, “I can see that in Bill now. He sees it.”
Another common result in families where parents are weak, narcissistic, or alcoholic is that the growing child either copies the immature habits he sees at home or leaps ahead to become a premature grown-up. The missed childhood can later trigger immature behavior as an adult. “I always wondered if I’d want to be sixteen when I was forty because I never felt like I got to complete my childhood,” Bill Clinton has said.
Carolyn Staley confides that “Virginia and Bill and Hillary have taken what might otherwise have been made out to be a debilitating background and they’ve carefully developed a spin to their lives to make Bill the conquering hero.”
Bill Clinton first laid eyes on Hillary Rodham at Yale Law School in a class they shared in political and civil liberties. He thought she was “the greatest thing on two legs,” but there was more to the attraction. They belonged to a new generation, where everything was supposed to be equitable between the sexes. Hillary had come to Yale already a star, renowned as a multiple winner on the TV quiz show College Bowl, and as the college senior who delivered an extraordinary counter-commencement speech at Wellesley College in 1969. The address, which earned her national publicity, including her picture in Life, had struck a very sixties tone: “We feel that our prevailing, acquisitive and competitive corporate life . . . is not the way of life for us. We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic . . . modes of living.”
What does Hillary remember as the most ecstatic experience of her twenties? She ponders, then laughs, conjuring up the sunny southerner with Elvis sideburns who entered Yale Law School a year after she did. “Falling in love with Bill Clinton,” she answers.
What attracted her to him? “He wasn’t afraid of me,” says Hillary.
“But I was afraid of us, I tell you that,” admits Bill.
He trailed her out of the class they shared, following her so close he could smell her hair, and then he stopped dead in his tracks. No, this is nothing but trouble, he told himself. “I could just look at her and tell that she was interesting and deep.” He walked away. For the next couple of weeks he stared at her, he stalked her, but he couldn’t bring himself to make the first move.
One night, huddled at the end of the library, he watched the object of his gaze stand up and march the full length of the Yale Law School library until she stood face-to-face with him. “Look, if you’re going to keep staring at me, then I’m going to keep looking back,” Hillary said, “and I think we ought to know each other’s names. I’m Hillary Rodham.”
“I was dumbstruck,” says Bill Clinton. “I couldn’t think of my name.”
They have been looking at each other with mixed feelings of fascination and apprehension ever since.
Studious, solemn, dynamic, substantive—these are the adjectives her classmates use to describe Hillary Rodham at Yale Law School. Hillary gave no thought to “getting herself up,” and was in fact mousy-haired, makeupless, and somewhat intimidating behind her oversize, Steinem-like glasses. Big Bill Clinton, by contrast, was “Mr. Aura”—a good time, funny, intense, a very quick study. Bill shared a famous beach house for the first two years with an African-American from a family of Philadelphia Republicans, Bill Coleman. He remembers Clinton partying, reading Camus, dating several women (including an African-American classmate). But he spent most of his time working on political campaigns. “He did not spend lots of time trying to master Marbury v. Madison,” snickers Coleman.
Professor Burke Marshall remembers Hillary vividly. “She was even then forceful, very smart, very articulate. Some very good lawyers ramble, but that’s not Hillary. Her mind is an organized mind.” Of Bill Clinton he says, “He was a very good student, he’s very, very smart. But I’d never have thought Bill Clinton was law-firm material. He was obviously going to be a candidate.”
To Clinton, law school was just a credential. He had a single-track focus. Even when he and Hillary took a house together, a baby Colonial, and “he was totally consumed by somebody else’s being,” as Coleman recalls, Clinton did not take his eye off his soaring political ambitions. As a result, doubts about the match lingered for Bill and Hillary. “I loved being with her, but I had very ambivalent feelings about getting involved with her,” Bill admits. He insists he warned Hillary from their earliest dates, “You know, I’m really worried about falling in love with you, because you’re a great person, you could have a great life. If you wanted to run for public office you could be elected, but I’ve got to go home. It’s just who I am.”
When Hillary and Bill joined the Barristers’ Union, to put on a competitive trial before a real jury, she whipped him into shape as her partner. Alan Bersin, a fellow student, now a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson in L.A., chuckles as he remembers Bill, “who was superb at presenting. But Hillary was definitely the serious one about getting work done and thinking through the position.” They did not, however, win the prize trial. “I just had a bad day,” Bill told me sheepishly, adding that it didn’t help when “Hillary wore this bright-orange outfit.”
But the dynamic duo made a lasting impression on one of the judges, John Doar, a hero of the civil-rights movement. Six months after they graduated, Doar was shopping for crack young lawyers to staff the House Judiciary Committee inquiry that would prepare the impeachment case against President Richard Nixon. Bill excused himself; he was already geared up for his 1974 congressional race. But what about Hillary? “If he hadn’t suggested her, I would have called her anyway,” says Doar.
The work was thrilling and grueling, twenty hours a day for six months. In August, treed by the committee’s work and public opinion, Nixon resigned. By the end of her first year out of law school, Hillary Rodham had become part of history.
Why would she marry him? That was what her Wellesley classmates and the feminists who knew Hillary from the McGovern campaign demanded to know. Most thought Bill was terrific. But move to Arkansas? You gotta be kidding, the subtext clearly being buncha redneck racists.
“I kept struggling between my head and my heart,” Hillary remembers. Head said: gold-plated law firm in New York or Washington, public-interest law, or government. Heart won. Later in the summer of 1974, she “took a leap of faith” and moved to Fayetteville. “I just knew I wanted to be part of changing the world,” she says now. “Bill’s desire to be in public life was much more specific than my desire to do good.”
Hillary and Bill taught at the University of Arkansas Law School, eschewing living together “because of the local mores.” After a year of trying on Arkansas life, Hillary decided to see what all her friends were doing that she might be missing. “I went to Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago,” she recalls. “I didn’t see anything out there that I thought was more exciting or challenging than what I had in front of me.”
When Bill picked her up at the midget airport, he was ebullient. “You know that house you liked?” Hillary looked blank. “What house?”
As Bill tells the story, she’d made a passing comment about a pretty little glazed-brick house. He’d gone out and bought it, feathering the nest with an antique bed and flowered sheets from WalMart. “So you’re going to have to marry me,” he declared, winding up his pitch as he pulled into the driveway of the house. Two months later she did.
“I was disappointed when they married,” admits Betsey Wright, who had met the dating couple when they came to her home state of Texas to work for the McGovern campaign in 1972. “She has been absolutely critical to Bill’s success but, then, I had images in my mind that she could be the first woman president.”
Mack McLarty, a childhood friend of Bill’s who now serves with Hillary on the board of the yogurt giant TCBY Enterprises, adds candidly, “I married above myself in terms of intellect, like Bill did.”
For Hillary, Arkansas was a different world. Even in Little Rock, where they moved in 1976 when Bill became attorney general, women were expected to be content with curling their eyelashes and selecting china patterns—especially political wives.
Instead, Hillary was recruited as one of the first women in the state to join a mainline law practice, the Rose Law Firm, after several partners were impressed by the way she set up the University of Arkansas’s legal-aid clinic. “I think initially there were some [clients] who might put her into a stereotype . . . the pushy, Yankee female,” says her law partner Webb Hubbell, “but I don’t think anybody after fifteen minutes with Hillary would think that. . . . She can tell if the client is very nervous or concerned about something and can put them at ease.”
In 1978 the Clintons swept into the governor’s office with the promise of youth and purity. “Arrogant” was the outcry of the Establishment, and the governor’s spouse became the lightning rod for people’s resentment. To southerners expecting a more decorative First Lady, Hillary Rodham was almost an eyesore. She rejected makeup, glared through thick glasses, drowned herself in big shapeless fisherman’s sweaters, and adamantly stuck to her maiden name.
Two years later, at the age of thirty-two, Hillary produced her “one perfect child” the same month she made law partner. According to Carolyn Huber, Hillary believed the baby came three weeks early because she was under the emotional stress of litigating a tough child-custody case. There were harrowing hours until Hillary underwent a cesarean. Finally, Bill emerged from the delivery room in green scrubs, cradling a seven-pound baby, saying he was “bonding” with his new daughter, and generally acting “like he’d invented fatherhood,” says Diane Blair, a political-science professor in Fayetteville.
But it was also an election year. When the newspapers reported that “Governor Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham had a daughter,” the voters were outraged at their First Lady’s blatant feminism.
His defeat that November was devastating for the Wunderkind governor, who was written off as having no political future. “There are a couple of periods in my adult life that were pretty tough,” says Bill, and this was the first one. Observant friends think Bill also felt as if he had failed Hillary. “The mutual admiration that creates the closeness in their marriage also produced difficulties,” says Piercey.
At the time of his disorienting loss, Hillary’s own career was soaring. “Subconsciously, that’s hard for all of us,” sympathizes Herb Rule, another of Hillary’s partners. “You always want your friends and spouse to do well. But not at a time when you’re failing.”
For the next six months, according to friends, the governor “went a little crazy.” They suggest that the Clintons’ marital problems began around this time, and lasted until a few years ago. Before the couple purchased a small house, Betsey Wright was summoned to move into the mansion and see what was salvageable of Bill’s career and his political records. “He got crazy in the incessant quest for understanding what he did wrong, which was masochistic,” remembers Wright.
The ousted governor stalked around the state apologizing for himself—and seeking solace. “The frustrations I went through in the seven years of being his chief of staff,” moans Wright, “of watching the groupie girls hanging around and the fawning all over him. But I always laughed at them on the inside, because I knew no dumb bimbo was ever going to be able to provide to him all of the dimensions that Hillary does.”
According to Wright, Clinton resisted the aphrodisiac effect of his powerful position more than many men. But, she admits, “Bill was always very careless, out of an unbelievable naïveté. He has a defective shit detector about personal relationships sometimes. He just thinks everyone is wonderful. He is also careless about appearances.”
Bill remembers during this dark period being so haunted by a sense of imminent death, “I would seize everything.” Hillary thinks he “viewed his father’s death as so irrational—so out of the blue—that it really did set a tone for his own sense of mortality. . . . Not just in his political career. It was reading everything he could read, talking to everybody he could talk to, staying up all night, because life was passing him by.” Uncharacteristically, her narrative begins to skip at this juncture: “I mean it was . . . it was an intense sense of. . . what he might miss at any moment.”
Some say Hillary took the political defeat harder than her husband did. When she gets down for brief periods, she withdraws into reading, playing dress-up with Chelsea, or trudging off to the Y to work out. She also prays. “Hillary has an unbelievable ability to control her personality and her moods,” marvels Wright. Sometimes, she pops off, not often, but stingingly. “The person on the receiving end never gets over it,” says Huber.
Hillary determined to do whatever it took to put her husband back in power. So, without a word from Bill, she shed her name for his. She also dyed her hair, traded her thick glasses for contacts, and feigned an interest in fashion.
The Clintons campaigned nonstop those next two years—on top of their jobs at respective law firms. The first of a series of baby-sitters was hired to live on the premises and be on twenty-four-hour call. Once their daughter began speaking, at age two, “Chelsea would say, ‘I want my mama,’ ” recalls Huber, but she soon learned to answer her own question: “Mommy go make’ peech.”
Commonly, a chief of staff and willful wife are natural enemies, but “Hillary made herself absolutely indispensable,” says Betsey Wright. She sat in on their strategy sessions. “Her own performance in selling and implementing his government programs was extraordinary. There were so many ways he needed her.”
Hillary also acted as his conscience. “I think that there have been many times when he would have liked to go home and turn on the TV and escape or just read a book,” concedes Wright, “and she would be in with a list of things people had called her about that day or that had to be done. He would be ‘Ah, couldn’t you just be a sweet little wife?’ instead of being this person helping me be what I’m supposed to be.
“Between Hillary at home and me at the office, pushing and pushing him, I know there was a point where he felt, These people need to leave me alone. I just want to do what I want to do. It was a rebellion.”
By the time voters returned the Clintons to the governor’s mansion in 1982, Hillary was ready with her beaded inauguration gown, Chantilly lace over charmeuse silk. And for Easter she made sure to pick out the sort of cartwheel-brimmed hat that would stir whispers of “Very nice” and “Just right.” As Jan Piercey puts it, “Hillary made her tradeoffs early on, and I think she steeled herself not to look back.”
The Clintons marched straight into the heat of public censure in ’83 when the governor appointed Hillary to chair the state committee on educational standards. She spearheaded a requirement for a onetime teacher examination. “Lower than a snake’s belly,” one school librarian called her. It was typical of the insults she faced for the next several years.
Hillary pushed on to introduce a consumer-rights approach to education, and the concept of continuing education for educators. She barnstormed around the state for hearings, stopping in all seventy-five counties. Her husband massaged his legislature until Arkansas was eventually tunneling seventy cents out of every tax dollar into education programs. These improvements—plus the governor’s timely hike last year in teachers’ salaries—won over the teachers’ union, which had been their bitterest foe. It was typical of the way their political partnership worked.
Hillary also injected her ideals into her corporate-board work. As a sort of resident sociologist on the board of Wal-Mart, a nonunion company with 380,000 employees, she contributed to the retailing giant’s ranking in The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America. Named head of Wal-Mart’s environmental committee, she reframed the question from waste disposal to education and launched the company on a recycling program. She “saved us from a false start on environmental policy,” says Rob Walton, son of the company’s founder.
The Clintons’ partnership looked perfect, at least from the outside. And then Bill stepped on another land mine from his past.
He was thirty-seven when he went through the worst year of his life. It was 1984, during his second term as governor, when a colonel of the state police phoned Betsey Wright, who dashed out to track down Hillary in a nearby restaurant and tell her, “We need to talk to Bill.” His twenty-seven-year-old half-brother, Roger, had been spotted selling cocaine. The state police wanted to inform Clinton about their undercover surveillance. Though he was pained by it, he told them to proceed. “It was,” says Hillary, “a much greater crisis than anything we’ve had in this presidential campaign.”
Bill’s half-brother did more than a year in prison, then came out only to discover that he was cross-addicted to alcohol. A drug counselor rounded up Bill, Roger, their mother, and even occasionally Hillary for intense family therapy. She led them through discussions on co-dependency. Clinton says the process helped him to learn things he never knew about himself. The counselor told them that the line between wanting to be a rock star—Roger’s dream—and a governor is a very thin one.
During “the next two or three years of discovery . . . they all came to grips with having grown up in the home of an abusive stepfather,” says Wright.
“After my brother got into trouble in 1984, it really had a profound impact on me,” explains Clinton. “I just couldn’t imagine. . . . I kept asking myself, How could I not have known this?”
The unfinished business of his past threw him again into a period of disequilibrium. He feared he might not be able to live up to the great expectations of his political life and his life partner. The soulsearching, which coincided with Bill’s mid-life passage from the age of thirty-seven to forty, also sparked a revival of the behavior that had earlier put strains on their marriage.
In the summer of 1987 forty-year-old Bill Clinton was poised to launch his candidacy for the presidency. Political big shots flew into Little Rock for the announcement luncheon. Everything was ready.
But moments before the scheduled start, Bill backed out. He and Hillary had had a heart-to-heart talk about the longstanding rumors of his zipper problem. Chelsea was only seven. It was too soon. The press that July day caught a rare glimpse of Hillary Rodham Clinton spilling emotion: she stood behind Bill and wept.
The period that followed the climb-down from their joint national aspirations may have been the nadir of their marriage. A clue slipped out during the 60 Minutes confessional. Bill told Steve Kroft humbly, “If we had given up on our marriage. . . three years ago, four years ago, you know . . . If we were divorced, I wouldn’t be half the man I am today, without her and Chelsea.”
So it was that Hillary Clinton woke up one morning last August in the Arkansas governor’s mansion, looked over at her husband’s sleepy face, and told him, “You almost have to do it,” meaning run for president.
“Do you have any idea what we’re getting into?” he asked.
“I know, it’ll be tough,” she replied. But she was ready to take her own platform national, as a campaign letter described it. And she was bored with the politics of Arkansas, where her husband has put in a full decade as governor. “She doesn’t like all the duties of First Lady,” confirmed her brother Hugh Rodham. “It’s tiresome and too local.”
Reflecting back on the personal journey he has made over the last four years, Bill says the fear of life running out at any moment has subsided. “It’s all different now. I think—in the aftermath of my brother’s encounter and all the stuff that Hillary and I went through, and where we are together now, and Chelsea—I’m so much more relaxed. I got into this race because I really felt I was strong enough and ready to be president . . . and because the things that Hillary and I have worked on together were more relevant to what has to be done in the country than anybody else.”
“Every life has challenges,” Hillary told me philosophically. “Life has become very unpredictable and scary for people. And the only insurance policy you’ve got against whatever comes down the pike is to be as ready as you personally can be. I think that’s part of what the voters have been saying to me: Nobody could have predicted that all this would happen to you. You didn’t ask for it. But you were ready. And, boy, we’re glad you were.”
If he loses, Hillary predicts, “Bill and I have great opportunities, we’ll always be able to make a good living, we’ve got a wonderful daughter—we’ll be fine.” It doesn’t usually work that way, however, particularly not for two driven people whose every axon and dendrite have been tingling for months as they crisscross the country in matching campaign planes, eager to deliver political redemption to the masses. If suddenly they land, SPLAT, back in Little Rock, and they wake up to the concern that their child has been necessarily neglected, and perhaps Hillary begins to thaw out the small, excruciatingly painful little package in the deep freeze labeled “Bill’s Marital Mistakes,” this could be a very difficult period.
But Hillary Clinton also has developed her own form and substance, her survival instincts and resilience. Maybe the next gubernatorial election the other Clinton will run. There could be a role switch: Bill might find rewards in replicating his childhood—supporting the woman who defines and controls his existence.
And maybe the next presidential election, or several more down the line, the other Clinton will be on the ticket. As Hillary told a Los Angeles audience recently, “We’ll have a woman president by 2010.”
Would she consider running? she was pressed. “We’ll talk later.”